Widow finds healing in helping survivors
May 11, 2011
FORT LEE, Va. (May 11, 2011) -- When her husband died in Iraq, Donna Engeman felt the helpless despair many feel after the loss of a loved one.
"In the first few months after John died, I didn't have anything in me," she said in reference to the death of Chief Warrant Officer 4 John W. Engeman. "Honestly, I wanted to crawl in that coffin with him."
Engeman and son, Capt. Patrick Engeman, attended the Ordnance Corps Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony May 4 on her husband's behalf. She shed tears at thoughts of his memory and the pride she felt as a result of his sacrifice and service.
"I'm so very proud - of him and my son," she said after the ceremony. "And I'm so proud of the Army and Ordnance Corps. What other organization in the world does stuff like this. Isn't this a great Army'"
Engeman's sentiment wasn't so rosy in the wake of her husband's death five years ago. All the usual emotions that surface as a result of a loss soon gave way to a kind of dissatisfaction bordering on anger stemming from the casualty support she received.
"I wasn't very happy with the way my husband's family was treated after he was killed," she recalled. "I felt we were left out after our CAO disengaged."
Casualty assistance officers are charged with notifying relatives of military members who have been killed unexpectedly, like those in combat. After notification, they serve to assist with administrative matters relating to the death, acting as a liaison between the family and government.
"They took care of everything, the benefits and entitlements but at a certain point, that CA has to disengage and go back to their duties," she said. "I wasn't quite ready for him to disengage. I was a little bit mad and I wanted to change that."
The activist in Engeman was born. She became closely connected with others who walked her path and worked to focus more attention on their plights. Two years ago, she took on a paid position as a survivor advocate for the U.S. Army Installation Management Command's Survivor Outreach Services Program. She said she is just that -- an advocate.
"I'm an advocate for survivors and sometimes that doesn't allow me the luxury of being a team player in the command I work for," she said, "because when survivors come to me and say, 'Hey, we like to see this changed' or 'I need help with this or that,' I turn around and say to the Army 'We need to listen to this person. We need to take a look at this. Is this what we're doing this right' Are we missing something here''
"Sometimes people don't want to hear that."
Engeman, whose husband spent more than 20 years in the Army, said the crust of her problem with the casualty assistance process are the emotional ties the surviving families have with the Army and its institutions. She said it is difficult for survivors to simply release from their relationship with the Army, one that was probably cultivated through much tribulation. She compared a survivor's ordeal with a Soldier upon his or her retirement.
"Think about it," she said. "When someone is getting ready to retire, they have sometimes up to a year to prepare for it, and we have ACAP and transition services for that Soldier and their families to help them prepare.
"A lot of our survivors -- we have less than a second to get prepared," she said. "In a second, our Soldier is dead and we're out. He's out of the Army and we're out."
The depth of Engeman's experiences as a survivor helped to promote change in the system. The result has been the implementation of a more comprehensive program that considers the emotional ties survivors have with the military.
"The thing I am most proud of is that we have well over a hundred survivor outreach services teams between the active Army side, the National Guard and Reserve," she said. "We have them on our installations and at National Guard and Reserve sites. They have been huge."
Engeman said the teams are scattered everywhere, to include geographically displaced areas, ready to assist families and loved ones when a military member has been lost.
"Our survivors don't have to come in (to an installation) for services," she said. "We go to them. This is a push system. We can get to them if they need our help."
And what if survivors require assistance and support after the CAO has disengaged'
"Our mission is to be there as long as the survivor wants or needs to be a part of the Army," said Engeman.
It is unfair and unrealistic, said Engeman, to think that survivors can pick up, transition and move forward after a loss.
"What we learned from survivors is that they need some time during transition," she said. "A lot of times it isn't going to happen in six months or it may not happen in a year. It's probably not going to happen in three years. If you're pushing someone out the door, it makes it that much more difficult.
"But if you tell them, 'Hey, take as much time as you need. We're here to help you and we'll do what we can.' That makes it a lot easier and takes a lot of stress off of us."
Engeman's stress level has seemingly subsided. After the ceremony, she was all smiles, receiving many thanks for her sacrifice and wishes of good fortune.
"I just want to thank everyone for their support," she said, "because it means so much for our surviving families to know that their loved ones are remembered. That just goes so far in our healing."